Correction: A previous version of the story listed the incorrect time frame that Country Carriages brings in an Amish farrier for its horses -- the farrier comes in every eight weeks. Updated Nov. 20, 2017.
After two horses fell to the pavement on Avenida Menendez in October, photos of the incident caused concern on social media.
The post led to renewed calls for changes in St. Augustine’s horse and carriage industry, and it led the city of St. Augustine to recently address misunderstandings about the photo and concerns about the industry.
Activists say the horse-and-carriage industry poses dangers to horses and humans. Others say horses are treated well by their caretakers.
The fall happened the evening of Oct. 15 when a driver for Country Carriages was ending a shift, according to Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield. The driver tried to turn the two horses that were pulling a tandem carriage on Avenida Menendez, but one lost its footing and both went down because they were tethered.
They were immediately taken to a stable for inspection by Veterinarian Herb Loeman, of Atlantic Veterinary Hospital in Jacksonville, according to Burchfield. He has performed many horse inspections for city carriage franchises.
He reported that the horses were fine aside from minor scratches and could return to work after they healed. But some people who saw the pictures, which went viral, thought the horses collapsed from exhaustion or mistreatment, according to Burchfield. Some people even thought the horses had died.
“Since the incident the city has been contacted about the treatment of the horses and accusations have been made that the working and stabling conditions are poor,” according to Burchfield. “From the city’s perspective the accusations being made are based on inaccurate information.”
Country Carriages owner Jennifer Cushion said horse-falls are not uncommon, but social media turned things into a “circus.”
She said she’s been working with the horses since she was a child and is now 44, and the horses have better benefits than people.
The horse’s work schedules vary, but they typically work five days a week. During summertime, they don’t begin work until 4 or 5 p.m. and work for about five hours. If horses get sick, they’re not forced to work.
Among other care for the horses, such as chiropractor visits, she brings in an Amish farrier every eight weeks.
“These guys are our livelihood, and I pay a lot of money for these horses, so why would I ever take a chance with hurting them?” Cushion asked.
Emily Roberts was one of only a couple of drivers offering horse-drawn carriage rides on a recent afternoon. She and horse Brock had stopped along St. Augustine’s bayfront for a rest.
Brock, who carried a stuffed version of the “Frozen” character Olaf on his back, neighed a few times while Roberts spoke and nudged his bucket of water and alfalfa — Roberts said that he wanted a treat that was heavier on the alfalfa.
If Brock is sick, he doesn’t work, she said. He gets cookies regularly, and Roberts calls him “extra special.”
“I’ve grown up around horses. … I love this job,” said Roberts, who works for Country Carriages.
The city has franchise agreements with several carriage companies, which delivers a percentage of profits to the city and brought in more than $23,600 in fiscal year 2016, according to Burchfield.
City Code regulates animal-drawn vehicles.
Among other rules, horses have to be inspected by a veterinarian at least twice a year. Horses can’t work when the temperature is 95 degrees or hotter or when the heat index is at 105 above, and there are limits to how many days and hours a horse can work consecutively.
“In my 28 years with the City I do not recall any issue with the health of horses or the living conditions of the horses that needed to be corrected,” Burchfield wrote in an email to The Record.
People who don’t break the laws can be fined $100 per violation and can have their franchise agreement with the city suspended. Police haven’t issued any citations in the past year for horse-safety violations, said Anthony Cuthbert, assistant police chief of the St. Augustine Police Department.
Still, there aren’t enough regulations to make the horse-and-carriage industry safe and humane, said Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Horses can get scared and run into traffic, she said. Among other concerns, horses working in cities have to inhale exhaust fumes and walk on pavement, which is “very bad” for their hooves, she said.
They’re also denied a natural existence of roaming in herds and traveling grassy areas for grazing, she said. St. Augustine City Code says horses have to get “pasture turn-out time” of least two non-consecutive weeks every four months.
PETA is also concerned about horses being sold and ultimately slaughtered outside of the country when they’re too old to work, Byrne said.
City Code says horses can be sold or disposed of in a “humane manner” that aligns with American Association of Equine Practitioners’ guidelines — it wasn’t clear from the association’s website what guidelines would apply, and no one from the organization was immediately available for comment.
Byrne said U.S. and international cities have ended their horse-and-carriage trades.
In 2014 the City Council in Salt Lake City, Utah, banned the carriage industry after a horse collapsed and died in high temperatures, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. But they allowed them to be used during special events.
“It’s high time that the remaining cities in the U.S. that are allowing horse-drawn carriages to operate in their city centers follow suit,” Byrne said.